Iheanacho rises up to challenge amid Leicester injury crisis
With the Foxes severely decimated in attack, the Nigeria international has the chance to finally step into a leading role in the Premier League
It ultimately would have counted for very little, but it is easy to understand Kelechi Iheanacho’s anguished reaction when he thrashed over from close range in stoppage time against Arsenal.
The Gunners had the game sewn up by that point, having gone into a 3-1 lead inside the opening 10 minutes of the second half. However, despite the swift turnaround in fortunes for both sides during proceedings, Iheanacho had arguably produced one of his stronger league performances for the Foxes since joining the club in 2017.
Playing off Jamie Vardy, the Nigeria international was inventive and involved – or at least as involved as Leicester’s counter-attacking game plan allowed. It was not a day on which many in blue shone, but Iheanacho was as likely to make something happen as any of his team mates.
Which is perhaps why he was so distraught when, even with the benefit of a fortuitous bounce from a corner, he was unable to bury that gilt-edged chance at the death.
It felt like a missed opportunity, not just because that is literally what it was, but because his was the sort of performance that will now probably be lost in the post-mortem. Getting a goal, albeit only a consolation, would have served to contrast his efforts even more against the backdrop of general ordinariness.
If there is any consolation for the 24-year-old, it comes in the form of the crippling injury crisis that now threatens to derail Leicester top four aspirations entirely. Harvey Barnes was the latest to join the ranks of the wounded, carted off the pitch six minutes into the second period with a knee injury that will keep him out for at least six weeks.
He joins James Maddison and Ayoze Perez on the treatment table; of their original front four, only Vardy remains available for selection.
What this means is that, invariably, there will be more opportunities for Iheanacho to impress. The misfortune of his teammates will no doubt be a concern for him, but if he is honest, the former Manchester City man will have been waiting for just such an opening for a while now.
His time at Leicester has seen him typecast somewhat as a Vardy facsimile, and manager Brendan Rodgers has just about kept him happy by dangling the prospect of replacing the 34-year-old former England international someday.
It is his goalscoring return at the Etihad Stadium that put him on the Foxes’ radar, but there is so much more to Iheanacho’s game than just that. In fact, more than his efficiency in front of goal, it is his ability to slide the ball through defensive gaps that put him on the footballing map at under-17 level to begin with. He is an altogether more contemplative player, who excels with a striker ahead of him to supply.
As such, filling in when Vardy is unavailable has proven challenging, as Iheanacho lacks the true explosiveness or agility of a proper centre-forward.
He has had to play the role in a slightly modified way, coming deep to link play where Vardy would go in behind: sometimes, as in the Europa League on occasion, it has worked; sometimes, as against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day, it has gone horribly wrong.
With injuries decimating their attacking ranks, Iheanacho enters a critical period in his Leicester career. Rodgers is a considerably more practical manager these days, and will almost certainly seek to re-format his side in order to avoid losing ground in the top four hunt. It is not inconceivable that the Nigeria international finally gets to play in the no.10 role that everyone seems convinced is his favoured brief, and if that happens, there will be no hiding place.
Being pegged as Vardy’s deputy had the unique perk of low expectations, at least in the short-term. He could continue to refine his game, while getting minutes away from the spotlight in cup competitions and cameos, and underperformance would be handily excused due to the Englishman’s sheer irreplaceability.
Jamie Vardy, Leicester City 2020-21
Now, however, he will be expected to deliver on the merits of his own game.
On paper, a partnership with Vardy has potential. Iheanacho’s through balls made Taiwo Awoniyi, a limited centre-forward for all intents and purposes, look like a world beater at the Under-17 World Cup.
Imagine what he could do with Vardy’s runs to pick out; with greater understanding between the pair, the link-up could be quite outstanding.
There was a glimpse of that, albeit momentarily, against Arsenal when Iheanacho picked up the ball inside the right channel, shaped to shoot and then dinked a delicate ball over David Luiz toward Vardy. The pass was just a tad over-hit, but his strike partner applauded the invention and vision.
It was the beginnings of something, and the latent possibilities will not have been lost on Rodgers.
If Iheanacho can rise to the challenge, it could very well be the making of him at Leicester City. It would also provide the Premier League with its first complete portrait of a player who is very well-known, but is rarely understood.